Designing for outer space

4 min read
Kayleigh Karutis
  •  May 5, 2016
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If you’re like me, the words NASA, asteroid missions, and micro-gravity experiments probably bring to mind images of complicated spreadsheets, number crunching, and engineers toiling away in a million-dollar lab.

Did you think of designers? Me neither. But you should have.

Design students from The Art Institute of Seattle recently rubbed elbows with NASA’s finest as part of the Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Competition (Micro-g NExT) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in late April. There, they tested their entry against prototypes made by engineers from Cornell, Columbia, and other prestigious institutions. And they were the only design students in the room.

The challenge? Design a core sampler that could be used in a zero-gravity setting, like on an asteroid, to collect specimens. Three industrial design students from the school—Blake Maurer, Adrian Galvan, and Maddy Balmer—submitted their idea and were one of 3 schools selected to build a working prototype and test it at NASA’s neutral buoyancy lab.

For these students, design was the differentiator. They knew they would be competing against engineers, but they didn’t try to think like them. Instead, they used design thinking to guide a highly iterative process.

“Design has a growing role in everything from wearable tech to space exploration.”

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“In an engineering setting, you run the numbers and do the math,” Maurer said. “We just built it and tested it and failed, over and over, but learned something every time. It was a way to get to a solution that was different from everyone else.”

Focusing on the user’s needs first was a core part of their approach too, Balmer said. One key factor influencing their design were the thick, cumbersome gloves an astronaut would use to operate the device. “We asked ourselves what that person’s experience would be. How do we make it best for them? It’s not about just adding padding if it’s uncomfortable.”

Think again, this time about engineers. Does “fun-loving” pop into your head first? Probably not. That was another key difference in the students’ successful approach, Galdan said.

“We took features and ideas from toys, kitchen tools, construction equipment—everywhere,” he said. “There was a playfulness to our approach.”

The team’s faculty advisor, Zanetka Gawronski, said she loved seeing the students learn skills that will help them no matter where they go in the design world.

“This has been completely student driven,” she said. “My role was purely support. In addition to watching them find and then push past their own limits, it’s been a joy to watch them become wonderful project managers. However their prototype works, they’ve already succeeded.”

NASA’s feedback was encouraging, said Sam King, director of campus relations at The Art Institute of Seattle. The competition leaders there were intrigued by an industrial design-minded approach, he said—particularly with regards to designing from the ground up based on human needs—and have asked the students to share a video about industrial design to spread the knowledge.

The fact these students and their design-centric prototype caught the attention of NASA’s best is testament to the growing role design has to play in everything from wearable tech to screen design to space exploration.

To infinity… and beyond.

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